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posted on 01.22.08

The quality of the work depends on the trajectory it describes in the cultural landscape. It constructs a linkage between forms, signs, and images.

Eclecticism and postproduction

The western world – through its museum system and its historical apparatus as well as its need for new products and new atmospheres – has ended up recognizing traditions thought doomed to disappearance in the advance of industrial modernism as cultures in themselves, accepting as art that what was once only perceived as folklore or savagery. Remember that for a citizen at the start of the century, the history of sculpture went from ancient greece to the renaissance and was restricted to european names. Global culture today is a giant anamnesis, an enormous mixture whose principles of selection are very difficult to identify.

How can we prevent this telescoping of cultures and styles from ending up in kitsch eclecticism, a cool hellenism excluding all critical judgment? We generally describe taste as “eclectic” when it is uncertain or lacks criteria, a spiritless intellectual process, a set of choices that establishes no coherent vision. By considering the adjective “eclectic” pejorative, common parlance accredits the idea that one must lay claim to a certain type of art, literature, or music, or else be lost in kitsch, having failed to assert a sufficiently strong – or, quite simply, locatable – personal identity. This shameful quality of eclecticism is inseperable from the idea that the individual is socially assimilated to his or her cultural choices: I am supposed to be what I read, what I listen to, what I look at. We are identified by our personal strategy of sign consumption, and kitsch represents outside taste, a sort of diffuse and impersonal opinion substituted for individual choice. Our social universe, in which the worst flaw is to be impossible to situate in relation to cultural norms, urges us to reify ourselves. According to this vision of culture, what each person might do with what he or she consumes does not matter; so the artist may very well make use of a terrible soap opera and form a very interesting project.

The anti-eclectic discourse has therefore become a discourse of adherence, the wish for a culture marked out in such a way that all its productions are tidily arranged and clearly identifiable, like badges or rallying signs of a vision of culture. It is linked to the constitution of the modernist discourse as set forth in the theoretical writings of Clement Greenberg, for whom the history of art constitutes a linear, teleological narrative in which each work is defined by its relations to those that precede and those that follow. According to Greenberg, the history of modern art can be read as a gradual “purification” of painting and sculpture and the contraction of their subject to their formal properties. Piet Mondrian thus explained that neo-plasticism was the logical consequence – and suppression – of all art that preceded it. This theory, which envisages the history of art as a duplication of scientific research, has the added effect of excluding non-western countries, considered “unhistorical” and unscientific. It is this obsession with the “new” (created by this vision of historicist art centered on the west) that one of the protagonists of the Fluxus movement, George Brecht, mocked, explaining it is much more difficult to be the ninth person to do something than to be the first, because then you have to do it very well.

In Greenberg and in many Western histories of art, culture is linked to this monomania that considers eclecticism (that is, any attempt to exit this purist narrative) a cardinal sin. History must make sense. And this sense must be organized in a linear narrative.

In an essay publised in 1987, “Historisation ou intention: le retour d’un vieux debat (Historicization or Intention: The return of an old debate), Yve-Alain Bois engaged in a critical analysis of postmodern eclecticism such as it was manifested in the works of the European neo-expressionists and painters such as Julian Schnabel and David Salle. Bois summed up these artists’ positions as such: Being freed from history, they might have recourse to history as a sort of entertainment, treating it as a space of pure irresponsibility. Everything from now on had the same meaning for them, the same value. In the early eighties, the trans-avant-garde struggled with a logic of bric-a-brac and the flattening of cultural values in a sort of international style that blended Giorgio de Chirico and Joseph Bueys, Jackson Pollock and Alberto Savinio, completely indifferent to the content of their works and their respective historical positions. At around the same time, Achille Bonita Oliva supported the trans-avant-garde artists in the name of a “cynical ideology of the traitor,” according to which the artist would be a nomad circulating as he pleased through all periods and styles, like a vagabond digging through a dump in search of something to carry away. This is precisely the problem: under the brush of a Schnabel or an Enzo Cucchi, the history of art is like a giant thrash can of hollow forms, cut off from their meaning in favor of a cult of the artist/demiurge/salvager under the tutelary figure of Picasso. In this vast enterprise of the reification of forms, the metamorphosis of the gods finds kinship with the museum without walls. Such an art of citation, practised by the neo-fauves, reduces history to the value of merchandise. We are then very close to the “equivalence of everything, the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the insignificant and the distinctive” which Flaubert made the theme of his last novel, and whose coming he feared in Scenarios pour Bouvard et Pecuchet.

Jean-Francois Lyotard could not bear the confusion between the post-modern condition such as he theorized it and the so-called post-modern art of the eighties: to mix neo- or hyper-realist motifs on the same surface with abstract, lyrical, or conceptual motifs was to signify that everything was equal because everything could be consumed. He felt that eclecticism solicited the habits of the magazine reader, the needs of the consumer of mass produced images, the mind of the supermarket shopper. According to Yve-Alain Bois, only the historicization of forms can preserve us from cynicism and a leveling of everything. For Lyotard, eclecticism diverts artists from the question of what is “unpresentable,” a major concern, since it is the garantee of a tension between the act of painting and the essence of painting: if artists give in to the eclecticism of consumption, the serve the interests of the techno-scientific and the post-industrial world and shirk their critical duties.

But can’t this eclecticism, this banalizing and consuming eclecticism that preaches cynical indifference toward history and erases the political implications of the avant-gardes, be contrasted with something other than Greenberg’s Darwinian vision, or a purely historicizing vision of art? The key to this dilemma is in establishing processes and practises that allow us to pass from a consumer culture to a culture of activity, from a passiveness toward available signs to practices of accountability. Every individual, and particularly every artist, since he or she evolves among signs, must take responsibility for forms and their social functioning: the emergence of a “civic consumption,” a collective awareness of inhuman working conditions in the production of athletic shoes, for example, or the ecological ravages occasioned by various sorts of industrial activity is each an integral part of this notion of accountability. Boycotts, detournements, and piracy belong to this culture of activity. When Allen Ruppersberg recopied Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Grey on canvas (1974), he took a literary text and considered himself responsible for it: he rewrote it.

When Louise Lawler exhibited a conventional painting of a horse by Henry Stullmann (lent by the New York Racing Association) and placed it under spotlights, she asserted that the revival of painting, in full swing at the time (1978), was an artificial convention inspired by market interests.

To rewrite modernity is the historical task of this early twenty-first century: not to start at zero or find oneself encumbered by the storehouse of history, but to inventory and select, to use and download.

Fast-forward to 2001: collages by the Danish artist Jacob Kolding rewrite the constructivist works of Dada, El Lissitzky, and John Heartfield while taking contemporary social reality as their starting point. In videos or photographs, Fatimah Tuggar mixes American advertisements from the fiftieswith scenes from everyday life in Africa, and Gunilla Klingberg reorganizes the logos of Swedish supermarkets into enigmatic mandalas. Nils Norman and Sean Snyder make catalogs of urban signs, rewriting modernity starting with its common usage in architectural language. These practises each affirm the importance of maintaining activity in the face of mass production. All its elements are usable. No public image should benefit from impunity, for whatever reason: a logo belongs to public space, since it exists in the streets and appears on the objects we use. A legal battle is underway that places artists at the forefront: no sign must remain inert, no image must remain untouchable. Art represents a counter-power. Not that the task of artists consists in denouncing, mobilizing, or protesting: all art is engaged, whatever its nature and its goals. Today there is a quarrel over representation that sets art and the official image of reality against each other; it is propagated by advertising discourse, relayed by the media, organized by an ultralight ideology of consumption and social competition. In our daily lives, we come across fictions, representations and forms that sustain this collective imaginary whose contents are dictated by power. Art puts us in the presence of counterimages, forms that question social forms. In the face of the economic abstraction that makes daily life unreal, or an absolute weapon of techno-market power, artists reactivate forms by inhabiting them, pirating private property and copyrights, brands and products, museum-bound forms and signatures. If the downloading of forms (these samplings and remakes) represents important concerns today, it is because these forms urge us to consider global culture as a toolbox, an open narrative space rather than a uni-vocal narrative and a product line. instead of prostrating ourselves before works of the past, we can use them. Like Rirkrit Tiravanija inscribing his work with Phillip Johnson’s architecture, like Pierre Huyghe refilming Pier Paolo Pasolini, works can propose scenarios and art can be a form of using the world, an endless negotiation between points of view.

It is up to us as beholders of art to bring these relations to light. It is up to us to judge artworks in terms of relations they produce in the specific contexts they inhabit. Because art is an activity that produces relationships to the world and in one form or another makes its relationships to space and time material.

From Nicolas Bourriaud – POSTPRODUCTION, C2002 Lukas & Sternberg, New York

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